One of my sweetest childhood memories was catching horny toads.
The Texas horned lizard, commonly called a horny toad (or horned frog if you’re not from Texas), is one of our natural wonders here in the Lone Star State. It’s our official state reptile. But you won’t see ‘em much around here anymore. They’re now a threatened species in Texas.
If you’ve not seen one, you’ve missed out on what I think must be the missing link between dinosaurs and modern reptiles.
The Texas horned lizard is a daylight critter and it loves hot weather. The lizard sports an interesting paint job. It’s as if it couldn’t decide between leopard spots and tiger stripes…so it chose both. Unlike the sleek, tubular design of most other lizards, the horny toad is shaped like a prickly Frisbee. And, true to its name, the lizard (it’s neither frog nor toad), is covered in spikes or “horns.”
The expression on a horny toad’s face is that of…well…steely soulfulness. There’s a sweet resignation in their eyes. It is as if the little critter is saying, “Go on. Pick me up and love on me. Just not too much. I gotta go grub hunting in about twenty minutes. Don’t wanna be late, ya know.”
I think they look like the hybrid offspring of a porcupine, a teddy bear and a space alien.
We Texans don’t really know why our horned lizards are disappearing. It’s thought that the red imported fire ant, changes in land use and environmental contaminants have something to do with their decline. Mostly, it’s a mystery, kind of like the disappearance of the honey bee. It’s happening, but we have no clue as to what’s causing it.
My daughters have never seen a horned lizard, and this breaks my heart. I was just about their age when I chased them in our backyard (they were 3 years old when I wrote this column). I remember how soft their underbellies were and how they seemed to be pretty patient with toddlers handling them.
Texas horned lizards will swell up like a puffer fish or squirt blood out of their eyes to scare off predators, but I never got squirted or swelled up on, probably because I let them go as soon as I caught them.
I wouldn’t mind having some horned lizards around my place. They love to eat ants, particularly harvester ants, but they’ll also munch grubs, beetles, spiders and grasshoppers.
Kind of a nice neighbor to have, if you think about it.
Texans think so highly of the horned lizard that Texas Christian University in Fort Worth made it their mascot. Before you laugh, please note that the TCU Horned Frogs are a force with which to be reckoned in athletics as well as academics. And they’re the only Texans allowed to call it a “horned frog” and not a “horny toad.” It’s their mascot; they can call it anything they want.
Writer O. Henry honored the Texas horned lizard in his tale, Jimmy Hayes and Muriel. Texas Ranger Jimmy Hayes introduces his “lady friend,” Muriel, sporting a red ribbon tied around her neck, to his buddies. Muriel, of course, is a horny toad.
“This here Muriel," said Hayes, with an oratorical wave of his hand, "has got qualities. She never talks back, she always stays at home, and she's satisfied with one red dress for every day and Sunday, too.”
Muriel was a good sport, even when Hayes calls her an “antediluvian handful of animated carpet-tacks.”
I had to go look up “antediluvian.” It means the time between Creation and the Great Flood in the Old Testament of the Bible.
I won’t spoil the ending for you, but I will tell you that it elevates the horned lizard to quite an honored place. In the end, Muriel speaks for Jimmy Hayes and his bravery when he can’t. And, yeah, you better have the tissues handy when you read it.
Frankly, I don’t know of a lizard more celebrated for its existence or endowed with more noble qualities than ol’ Phrynosoma cornutum, the most notable of which is the Texas horned lizard of Eastland County, Old Rip.
Supposedly, Old Rip got himself tombed up in the cornerstone of the Eastland County Courthouse in 1897. Some 31 years later, when the courthouse was torn down, the little horned lizard was found alive, and named for Rip van Winkle for having “slept” for so long. Of course, skeptics said the whole thing was an elaborate hoax and that’s probably true, but to Texans, it really didn’t matter. The little reptile had won our hearts and he became a bona fide celebrity, rubbing scaly elbows with the likes of President Calvin Coolidge at the White House.
A year later, Old Rip succumbed to pneumonia and was sent to the Great Reptilian Beyond complete with funeral and velvet lined coffin. His embalmed body is on display, ala Vladmir Lenin, at the courthouse. Even posthumously, Old Rip went on to have other adventures, including an unfortunate amputation at the hands of a former Texas governor and having been “toadnapped” once or twice. He’s now very closely guarded by Eastland County officials.
Eccentricities aside, we Texans love our horny toads mostly because the lizards remind us of the best parts of our childhoods. Show us a horny toad, and we’ll coo and croon over it like a puppy or a kitten, and then recite about half a dozen personal anecdotes about horned lizards we once knew.
I’m pretty certain no other a scaly, spiky, bug-eating, cold-blooded critter on this planet enjoys that kind of high human regard.
First printed in The Fort Hood Sentinel, 2009.